a series of interesting choices thoughts on game design from paul sottosanti


everything went better than expected

Four months ago, I wrote a blog post entitled why i'm skeptical about active reload in SpyParty. I then proceeded to play SpyParty, with an implementation of said active reload (or Action Tests, as it were), and things went altogether better than expected. Then I promptly failed the third and crucial step, which was writing about why. In my defense, I was shipping a game, which is an all-consuming time-sucking vortex if I've ever seen one. Still, better late than never, so this is happening. Right. Now.

(Those last two words were more to keep myself pumped up than they were for your benefit, gentle reader, but I'm leaving them in there just the same. As much as I love having a blog, I'm not the type to rush home and pound out an entry every night. When precious inspiration strikes, it must be kindled.)

First off: during the playtest, it became clear that Ian had "leveled up" several times in his Sniper skills thanks to manning the SpyParty booth at conventions like PAX, whereas my Spy skills had stayed about the same or even atrophied somewhat. So we actually ended up testing the case of the elite Sniper against a decent Spy, rather than two evenly matched players.

Second: in a discussion with Chris before we started playing, he compared the Action Test meter to the physicality of spy actions. It was sort of a throwaway comment that was almost tangential to the rest of the conversation, but it actually made me feel significantly better about the feature, perhaps more than anything else. Put yourself in the shoes of the actual Spy for a moment. You're trying to bug the ambassador at a party surrounded by twenty people, or trying to slip some microfilm out of a book without anyone noticing. Maybe someone's watching you closely, so you try to do it more quickly than normal. Maybe your nerves are acting up and your hands are trembling just a little. Seen in that context, the Action Test becomes almost a way of humanizing the Spy. He's no longer an infallible automaton; he can mess up just like the rest of us.

Chris also mentioned that Jason Rohrer had suggested a nervousness meter, and just to add another layer of deception and strategy, maybe the Spy could step outside onto the balcony for a cigarette, reducing nervousness but giving up valuable seconds and potentially tipping off the Sniper. Maybe the Sniper shining his laser sight in the room would increase the Spy's nervousness at the cost of showing where he's looking. The better off your nerves are, the wider the range for the postive result on Action Tests. I think this suggestion has promise, because again, it brings the Action Test out of the realm of a seemingly tacked on skill ceiling mechanic and into the realm of the fiction.

Now, some observations from the playtest:

It makes the Sniper look for behavioral tells instead of animation tells. SpyParty is at its worst when the Sniper is just staring at the bookcase, waiting for someone to play a certain animation. There are no shades of gray with animation tells; either the Sniper sees it, and they shoot, or they don't, and can't. Behavioral tells, on the other hand, are much more interesting and can lead to varying levels of suspicious without confirmation. The addition of Action Tests actually forces the Sniper to look for behavioral tells, because they can no longer rely on noticeable animations playing when the Spy completes an action. Related: as the Spy, it wasn't enough to just succeed at the Action Tests. There was one memorable game where I got a perfect result on 2 out of my 3 Spy actions, and Ian still took me out with ease thanks to some behavioral mistakes on my part.

It provides a nice shot of adrenaline based on the results. In a shooter with active reload, the stakes aren't all that high. It's the difference of a couple seconds, and it's happening constantly throughout the game, so there's no spike of intensity when you fail to pull it off. When a Sniper is staring right at you, the stakes are life or death every time, and there's a definite feeling of smug satisfaction every time you pull it off, and a shooting feeling of panic whenever you completely fail.

It does feel like the Spy needs some recourse when they are highlighted all the way up. This playtest with Ian was the first one where I felt truly dominated. Ian had my number, and there was nothing I could do to shake him. Even the slightest missteps would result in him highlighting me, and once I was fully highlighted, my only out was the Action Tests. It turns out that the AIs rarely if ever arouse suspicion from an elite Sniper on their own, which meant that waiting around and acting "normal" wasn't enough. I'd still be highlighted, and he'd still shoot me as soon as I attempted a mission. With Action Tests, though, a string of perfect results plus perfect behavioral play could theoretically allow me to pull off a win even under his watchful eye. (Not that it actually happened, but it's the hope that's important. "The player should always have hope" is a good rule for multiplayer game design.)

It's an opportunity for humor. SpyParty is a 1v1 battle of wills where every second counts and every decision is life or death. For players who are competitive, who can't just shrug off losing like it doesn't matter, the game can be rather intense. Those of you who have played a fair amount of 1v1 Starcraft 2 will probably know what I'm talking about. Adding some opportunities for humorous animations with the failed Action Tests can go a long way towards breaking that continuous intensity. It's something to blame when you lose, and something to talk about after the match.

Of course, it wasn't entirely upside. There were a couple potential drawbacks as well:

It makes the game more complicated for a new Sniper. It's no longer as simple as saying, "Here is what the Spy is trying to do. Here's what you're looking for." There are now three potential outcomes to each Spy action, and new Snipers have to continually question their information. It opens up the question of maybe having a beginner version of the game with no Action Tests, although Chris has been testing with new players and they seem to mostly ignore the Action Tests altogether, so perhaps it's fine the way it is.

Elite spies will have to practice the Action Test to keep their skills up. I've already put in probably about an hour of endless Action Tests, trying to incrementally improve my results. At the end of the hour, though, it felt more like one of those zen activities where being "in the zone" was far more important than rote practice. The randomness that Chris added to the system went a long way here. Still, adding Action Tests comes with the cost of adding a mechanical skill to playing the game that can potentially be incremented through repetition.

Still, given my previous post on the subject, from my point of view, the playtest was a wild success. Am I sure that Action Tests belong in the game? Not exactly. Something like the nervousness meter, or a UI treatment that somehow makes them feel less mechanical, would still help immensely. And honestly, how many games that are made these days can support a nervousness meter in the first place? Making SpyParty without a nervousness meter would be like making a Cthulhu game without a sanity meter. Well, that might be going a bit far, but I'm intrigued by the possibility.

Now to get back to practicing my Action Tests...

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  1. Thanks, awesome thoughtful post, and not just because it’s about my game! :)

    I will take issue with this: “Making SpyParty without a nervousness meter would be like making a Cthulhu game without a sanity meter.”

    I’m not ruling out something like this (and the “take a drag on the cigarette” idea was Rohrer’s, and I love that idea of characters having a personality tick or crutch the player needs to cultivate), but I think you’ve been working on avatar-skill games for too long, Paul. :) The nervousness should be in the Spy player, not the Spy character. This is also why sanity meters feel so dorky in all the Cthulhu games, because they don’t feel like something the player is experiencing. It’s an interesting design challenge to come up with a game design for a Cthulhu game where sanity doesn’t feel like some tacked on auto-nerf just when things get interesting. That, or design a Cthulhu game where you actually drive the player insane, of course.

    SpyParty has it a little easier, since making people nervous is already what it does best, in some sense. I think the idea of a “crutch” is consonant with that, but the nervous-meter isn’t. But, I need to think about it more. And you need to playtest it more, so finish your damned game!


  2. Yeah, that sentence was a bit tongue in cheek, as in, I haven’t thought much about how strong of an idea a sanity meter actually is in Cthulhu games, so maybe it’s not that great of an idea in SpyParty either. I just love to see people developing games where it’s not just hit points, mana, levels, and everything else we see over and over again. (I say this as someone who’s working on one of those games, of course. Heh.) Like the Sims was the first (?) game to include a bladder meter, and it spawned a genre and became the most popular PC franchise of all time. Not because of the bladder meter, but because it dared to be different in a way that resonated with people.

    I guess what I’m trying to say is: I don’t think you necessarily need to add a nervousness meter to SpyParty, but I’m just happy that you’re making a game that could realistically support one in the first place. :)

    And I want the Action Tests to feel more tied into the fiction, somehow. Spy nervousness doesn’t seem like an avatar skill addition to me, in that your avatar never gets better at managing it or levels up the size of their bar, or what have you. It just becomes another tool for psychological warfare within the game, controlled by the actions of the players.

  3. Sounds like the distance between Spy actions and normal AIs might be too big, too. You could decrease that with Action tests, and that might be good (I haven’t tried it yet). But you can also have the AIs act a bit more suspiciously, and that might be good too.

  4. > It just becomes another tool for psychological warfare within the game, controlled by the actions of the players.

    Yeah, and this is why I think it might be appropriate, but I do think it will be more effective if it’s a tick or crutch that needs managing. You, of course, will be one of the first to find out.

    > have the AIs act a bit more suspiciously

    Yeah, I’m going to add intention to the AIs at some level, but I definitely want to keep hard tells in there, I was surprised to find they play an important part in the stress rhythm of the game. If you’re still alive after you do a hard tell, then you know you made it (or the Sniper is fucking with you!), and that’s one of the few points of relief in the nail-chewing that is the game. But, things like the Seduce Target mission are attempts to make more missions where the only difference between the Spy and regular partygoers is intention, and so if I add the General following the Ingenue around, the Sniper will have to make a call about whether that’s mere lechery, or the Seduce Target mission.


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